S. Congaree mobile home residents live in squalor as landlord accountability moves slowly

Published: Oct. 13, 2022 at 4:19 PM EDT|Updated: Oct. 13, 2022 at 5:52 PM EDT
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UPDATE: This web story has been updated to include new information regarding eviction cases between landlord Naomi Halter and tenant Ms. Richards and Linda Sydnor. The cases stemmed from unpaid rent.

The S.C. Residential Landlord and Tenant Act does not alleviate a landlord’s responsibilities on habitability based on unpaid rent nor does it alleviate the tenants responsibility to pay rent based on a landlord’s failure to make repairs.

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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - Roaches, broken water piping, and leaking wastewater have been the reality for some mobile home residents in the small Lexington County town of South Congaree.

WIS visited the mobile homes in September, they were found off dirt roads in two different parks located in the heart of town.

The residents told WIS they don’t have the resources to move elsewhere. Town leaders are aware of the conditions and have taken steps to beef up code and ordinance enforcement in the parks.

The Department of Health and Environmental Control oversees wastewater in mobile home parks and has also gotten involved.

After months of back-and-forth with the landlord, the agency reported to WIS on Wednesday the landlord has made repairs to one home WIS visited. At another, DHEC reported an order to fix the leak was considered “met” after inspectors failed to identify leaking wastewater in recent visits.

The authority to hold a landlord accountable for repairs is split between state law, local ordinances, and state agency regulations. Despite action on all three fronts, the system has been slow to get results.

Naomi Halter is the landlord of the two parks WIS visited, and neither Halter nor her attorney responded to multiple requests for comment on the story.

The town has revoked Halter’s business licenses. Halter appealed the revocation and the outcome of that appeal is leaving the future of the parks and where the tenants will live in question.

The conditions in the homes

At the invitation of residents, WIS visited mobile homes at two parks in September. The parks are within a two-minute drive of each other on Chapel Road and Genesis Circle.

Lexington County records show Halter owns both parks

Chapel Road

At Chapel Road, WIS spoke with a resident who wished to be referred to as “Ms. Richards” on Sept. 23.

Stray cats roamed her property. She said they’re lured by the cans of cat food she leaves on her doorstep.

“I don’t want the rats to try to get in the house, so I figure I’d rather keep [the cats] around,” she said.

With her son at her hip, she walked WIS around the exterior of the mobile home. She explained she came to Halter’s park after hearing credit scores would not be a significant hurdle.

Richards showed WIS the crawl space beneath the home, where the material making up the underbelly of the home was sloughing down. She claimed it was from prior water leaks.

“It’s actually separating inside. I have areas where there’s holes you can fit your whole arm in,” she said.

Nearby, wastewater flowed from her septic system. WIS viewed the wastewater flow on the dirt road by her home and approach Chapel Road.

She said leaking wastewater was an “everyday” occurrence and compared it to living in “hell.”

She expressed concern about the effects that the proximity of the wastewater may have on her children.

“I feel like a bad parent, I feel like a real bad parent, because my kids are suffering,” she said.

In May, DHEC ordered Halter to fix the wastewater issue.

On Oct. 12, the agency sent WIS a statement reading:

At this time, the responsible party has met the requirements of the Administrative Order. Our staff have visited this site multiple times since we’ve issued the order and have found no evidence of domestic wastewater discharge: June 16, Sept. 26 and Oct. 3, 2022.

When asked about this later, Richards told WIS there was a leak on Oct. 11.

During the tour on Sept. 23, she showed WIS a roach infestation. WIS viewed roaches crawling out of her walls, out of holes, and in cabinets.

She kept her condiments and food on the counter so she could see if the roaches were on them and allow her to clean up afterward.

“Everyday is a struggle, every day I’m trying to get through. Everyday, everyday is a struggle,” she said.

In the living room, she told WIS she doesn’t buy new furniture out of fear of the roach infestation.

A play pin for her children dominates the floor to separate her children from the vermin.

“They can’t really be kids and run around, because I’m always, like I’m concerned,” she said.

Additionally, she showed WIS a non-functioning stove.

WIS asked why she would stay living in such conditions.

She responded by explaining how a large electric bill, coupled with rent and her expenses on roach repellant keep her from saving.

“I feel like I’m in a prison. You know? I’m spending too much to stay and then I can’t save to leave” she said.

Her lease shows her rent is $775 a month, and she said her electric bill was comparable.

The lease references repair responsibility twice, appearing to contradict itself. The first section reads in part:

Management will make necessary repairs to mobile home with reasonable promptness after a receipt of written notice from the resident.

It later reads:

If anything needs repair within the mobile home, notify management immediately in person, phone call and/or in writing.

Richards and her attorney Macaulay Morrison took Halter to court in May over the conditions at the home, bringing two cases.

One case sought a preliminary injunction to get the repairs ordered.

In June, Lexington County Magistrate Judge Matthew Johnson issued an order dismissing the case so long as Halter fixed the issues with the septic tank, fix the electric issues, seal the holes in the home and patch the roof.

In August, Morrison filed paperwork in Lexington County Court on Richards’ behalf seeking to hold Halter in contempt of court for failing to address the septic tank, lack of pest control, holes in the building, and electrical system failures.

A hearing of the contempt of court was scheduled for the morning of Friday, Oct. 14.

In the second case, Morrison filed a lawsuit over the same issues.

In a response, Halter argued she did not receive notice of the alleged issues, Richards caused the issues, that Richards has not paid rent and that Halter was seeking eviction.

Lexington County court records show Halter first notified Richards of unpaid rent in Jan. 2021 worth $4,771. Johnson ordered Richards to vacate or respond to Halter’s eviction request that month.

The eviction was delayed due to Richards’ use of the CDC eviction moratorium and Sept. 2021 appeal. Richards’ appeal was ultimately rejected on Sept. 21, 2022.

At the Oct. 14 hearing, Johnson addressed both the contempt of court request and the issue of unpaid rent.

Richards told the court she had not paid halter since March 2022.

Johnson found Halter in contempt of court for failing to correct the issue of the roaches. He ruled Richards could stay at the property rent-free for 45 days.

After 45 days, if the roaches were removed, Richards’ eviction would proceed.

If the roaches weren’t removed, Richards would be able to stay longer.

Halter declined to comment before the hearing and appeared to avoid WIS afterwards.

Genesis Circle

On Sept. 22, WIS spoke with several Genesis Circle tenants who quickly gathered to highlight the conditions of their mobile homes.

Resident Linda Sydnor showed WIS multiple holes in her flooring and a non-functional toilet.

She echoed Richards’ reasoning for remaining at the home, citing credit.

“[Halter]’s easier. She’s easier to deal with. So we don’t have to do background checks, credit checks, or anything. She was an easier person to get a place,” she said.

She presented WIS with two hand-written letters dated July 13, 2020, and March 10, 2022, respectively, outlining a deteriorating floor, mold, and electrical issues.

Sydnor said she gave copies of the letters to Halter. It’s unclear if Halter received them.

She presented WIS with a lease that expired in Nov. 2020, saying she was month-to-month on her rent at a rate of $725 a month.

Her lease used the same repair language as Richards.

Sydnor said she is not currently looking for a lawyer.

On Oct. 14, she appeared before Johnson at the Oak Grove Magistrate’s Office over an eviction proceeding Halter filed in August. Johnson gave an order to vacate on Aug. 15, and it was served on Aug. 18.

She told Johnson rent has not been paid for September or October. Johnson ordered her to vacate by Oct. 21, with a writ of ejectment potentially following on Oct. 24 if she does not.

Later that day, Sydnor’s neighbor Demereich Staley walked WIS through her mobile home.

Staley showed WIS a large hole in the floor which was covered with a board. Staley claimed her boyfriend had done the work.

Staley said she was looking to get her kids in school quickly, and the mobile home park presented itself.

“They said she was kind cheap on rent, however the situation may be,” she said.

Staley’s lease showed she was being charged $850 a month for rent.

The lease reflects the same language on repairs that are seen in Richards and Sydnor’s leases. She’s provided WIS with no written notes requesting repairs.

Staley also walked WIS around the outside of the mobile home. Water was pooling up near her backdoor, and she showed WIS an actively burst pipe underneath her mobile home.

Staley said she attempted to contact Halter about the pipe without success.

On Oct. 12, DHEC reported to WIS that the repairs have been completed on the pipe under the house.

Staley will not get to enjoy the repairs. On Aug. 22, Halter filed court documents to eject Staley over a failure to pay $8,354 in rent due on Aug. 16.

On Aug. 22, Magistrate Judge Matthew Johnson ordered Staley to leave or respond to Halter’s request for ejectment within 10 days. The order was served on Aug. 25.

Johnson ordered the eviction on Sept. 7.

A Lexington County Sheriff’s Deputy evicted Staley on Sept. 27, five days after her interview with WIS.

Staley provided WIS with a screenshot of an Aug. 30 email from the federally funded emergency rental assistance program SC Stay Plus.

The email confirmed payment to Halter for $8,354 had been approved and would be forthcoming within 30 days.

It’s unclear if Halter received the money.

SC Housing sent WIS these statements:

Payments from SC Stay Plus are made under an agreement that the landlord will not pursue an eviction based on unpaid rent. Therefore, if a landlord receives payments that bring a lease current and still pursues eviction based on past-due rent, SC Stay Plus demands the return of those funds. We cannot disclose what happened in this case without a signed release available on our website at SC Housing.

Related to the conditions of the mobile home its statement read:

The US Treasury does not make home inspections a requirement for issuing payments through the Emergency Rental Assistance program. Therefore, SC Stay Plus makes its assistance decisions based solely on the program’s eligibility rules—not on where someone lives

A complicated web of accountability

The mandated conditions and responsibilities at mobile home parks are outlined by leases, state law, local ordinances, the Department of Health and Environmental Control, and local courts.

State law

The S.C. Residential and Landlord Tenant act governs the responsibilities of those involved in a rental property.

It holds landlords responsible for several items, including the following, if an alternative agreement isn’t reached:

  • Comply with all building and housing codes impacting health and safety
  • Make all repairs to keep the premises habitable
  • Keep the premises safe and clean
  • Ensure running water and “reasonable amounts” of hot water, if applicable
  • Ensure electric, gas, plumbing, sanitary, heating, ventilation, a/c, and other appliances are functional and safe

Tenants are responsible for the following:

  • Comply with all building and housing codes impacting health and safety
  • Keep the premises “reasonably safe and reasonably clean”
  • Not to damage any part of the property
  • Keep plumbing fixtures “reasonably clean”

It lays out tenants can deliver written notice to landlords of health or safety issues at the premises.

The S.C. Residential Landlord and Tenant Act does not alleviate a landlord’s responsibilities on habitability based on unpaid rent nor does it alleviate the tenants responsibility to pay rent based on a landlord’s failure to make repairs.

South Carolina Legal Services provides free non-criminal legal services to eligible low-income residents in the state.

The organization’s Deputy Director of Litigation and Training, Mark Fessler, said the law presents tenants with two options if landlords don’t uphold conditions in a property when notice is given.

The tenants can sue for the issues to be fixed and collect damages or alert the landlord that the lease will be broken if the issues aren’t fixed in 14 days.

“One caveat is that if the tenant intends to terminate the lease and leave, the written notice needs to say that,” he said.

Fessler said providing notice in writing is best practice for the sake of court documentation.

WIS showed him the lease template of the residents. He said the verbiage in the leases provided doesn’t shift any responsibility outlined in the landlord-tenant act.

Local ordinances

South Congaree’s Ordinances feature an entire chapter on mobile home parks.

It requires the owner of any mobile park to have a valid license issued by the town annually, after an “annual May inspection” done by the town’s Building official.

Additionally, it empowers the town’s health authority/zoning official to inspect the mobile home parks and notify landlords of issues to safeguard the health and safety of occupants.

The ordinance creates an appeal process for landlords who have their operating permit suspended, which includes a hearing before the town council.

The ordinances include rules that the mobile home can be unoccupied no longer than six months and can’t be used as a storage facility.

Town ordinances also require mobile home parks follow DHEC regulations.

DHEC regulates onsite septic tanks and agency records show it has been active in South Congaree.

What DHEC has done about it

DHEC Media Relations Director Ron Aiken provided WIS with this statement on Sept. 27:

DHEC has received complaints related to malfunctioning septic tanks in mobile home parks in the South Congaree area. When staff investigated these complaints, some of them were confirmed as staff observed septic tank issues on site, while for other complaints, there was no evidence of a malfunctioning septic system.

For the complaints at the locations where staff confirmed an issue, the property owners have either already made the necessary repairs to resolve the septic tank issue or the property owner is currently under a deadline for the repairs to be made.

Malfunctioning septic systems can pose a significant risk to the environment and nearby residents. As a result, DHEC investigates complaints related to septic systems and when problems are found, requires the owner to correct the issues and ensure the septic system is functioning properly in a timely fashion. In addition to investigating complaints, DHEC also provides information and resources to assist property owners in properly maintaining their septic systems, such as the information available here.

Morrison and DHEC provided WIS with documents showing DHEC inspectors have visited both the Genesis Circle and Chapel Road parks.

Documents show on Feb. 16, 2022, inspectors visited Genesis Circle park, finding wastewater “discharging to the ground” underneath a mobile home (not Staley’s).

It mandated the situation be fixed by Feb. 22, but by March 1, DHEC officials found the issue persisted. This time it was under Staley’s property.

They found pooling wastewater in three other properties as well, in addition to an open septic tank at a fourth property.

They gave her a March 8 deadline to make fixes, and wrote in their report:

Ms. Halter indicated that the tenants were not paying rent and revolting against her. Department personnel explained that she was still responsible for making repairs at the Site to stop the discharge of domestic wastewater.

As of May 16, 2022, the records no repairs had been made.

DHEC ordered a $5,000 fine if the situation was not fixed within five days or if the property wasn’t evacuated until repairs were made.

On June 22, 2022, DHEC sent Halter a letter stating the problems had not been corrected, offering another 15 days to correct the issue to avoid the $5,000 penalty.

It threatened civil litigation and placing a lien on the property.

Administrative Law Court records show DHEC filed a request for enforcement and injunctive relief against Halter on Aug. 29.

A hearing was scheduled for Oct. 25.

On Oct. 12, DHEC sent WIS an update reading in part:

The Administrative Law Court was scheduled to hear this case on Oct. 25, 2022, however because the responsible party has met the requirements of the Administrative Order, as described in the subset below, DHEC has asked the case to be dismissed and no further action is being taken at this time. DHEC’s most recent site visits were on Aug. 31, 2022, and Sept. 26, 2022.

At Chapel Road, DHEC records show inspectors responded to Richards’ home on Nov. 2, 2021, finding the wastewater, running, pooling and smelling.

DHEC sent Halter notice on Nov. 2.

The document proceeds to outline a series of failed attempts to communicate with Halter, missed deadlines to have it repaired, and continued wastewater issues.

Similar to the Genesis Circle order, a $5,000 fine was suspended if the situation was corrected.

As part of the Oct. 12 update, DHEC sent WIS an update reading in part:

At this time, the responsible party has met the requirements of the Administrative Order. Our staff have visited this site multiple times since we’ve issued the order and have found no evidence of domestic wastewater discharge: June 16, Sept. 26 and Oct. 3, 2022.

Our staff also has been informed by an onsite wastewater contractor that the 120 Chapel Road/Sana Circle septic tank was pumped and the inlet line from the residence was unclogged on Sept. 28, 2022. The contractor also stated the septic tank at the neighboring residence at 130 Sana Circle was pumped out in 2021.

Richards claims the problem was temporarily fixed in the aftermath of WIS’ interview (Sept. 23) but the septic leak returned Oct. 11.

What South Congaree leadership is doing about it

At the time of WIS’ interview with town leadership, the South Congaree Police Department solely managed the town’s code enforcement.

The department is led by long-time South Congaree resident Chief Josh Shumpert.

“Over the years [the mobile homes have] obviously deteriorated, they’ve always needed some more upkeep than they have been given. They need some more attention over the years, but they were just kind of a thing that you passed by that and you didn’t really pay it much attention,” he said.

Shumpert said the new emphasis was put on code enforcement in the aftermath of Mayor Cindy Campbell’s election in 2020.

“I will say, when she came in, you know, council’s changed, mayor’s changed, people change, and we’re going to follow the lead of our leaders. This mayor has said she wants to clean up the town, and that’s what we’re going to do,” he said.

Campbell said she was alerted to the conditions in the homes after receiving a phone call about a child who was isolated at school. She said that child was not bathing because of a lack of running water at their mobile home.

WIS has not been able to verify if that situation occurred.

“I think about human rights issues, the fact that these families have rights, the fact that we have children that don’t speak up for themselves. I mean, I’m a grandma, I know. These children need somebody to fight for them,” she said.

Sgt. Chad Walker is the town’s the point-person for code enforcement, splitting time between traditional police work and enforcing town ordinances.

“Sometimes they’ll call us for help, they don’t have water, the landlord won’t fix something in their house, they won’t fix the bathroom,” he said.

Shumpert said Walker and the department often don’t have the authority to address the conditions of the mobile homes.

“We have to point them somewhere else to another court because we don’t deal with the civil side of it. The landlord-tenant act, things like that, or evictions, or DHEC issues,” he said.

He said the department can get them contact information for the applicable court, give them advice, and remove vulnerable kids or adults if it becomes an issue of safety.

Walker said the local magistrate would have the authority to enforce the Landlord Tenant Act.

Despite that, Walker has been active in citing landlords on town ordinances.

Shumpert provided violation notices for mobile homes since Nov. 2021. The records reflect Walker’s interactions with four different landlords for 20 different properties in town.

Halter leads all landlords with 15 of the 20 properties in that group.

The majority of the 20 properties were cited for being unoccupied or being used for storage.

One property (not owned by Halter) was cited for being unoccupied and being “unsanitary, unsightly and unsafe.”

Halter was found guilty on 11 counts of an unoccupied mobile home in municipal court on Sept. 21.

An Aug. 25 letter from Halter’s attorney Bryn Sarvis to the South Congaree Town Clerk shows the town served Halter with a notice of her business license revocation on Aug. 24 for failing to remove older mobile homes “marked for removal by the town.”

In the letter, Sarvis explained Halter attempted to remove and donate the homes. However, Sarvis reported interested charities backed out and a removal company spiked the price of the removal. She wrote in part:

At the time of the hearing, the removal had already commenced, and Ms. Halter’s understanding was that the removal company would be continuing, weather permitting, from day to day until the removal was complete.

Members of law enforcement have acknowledged that she has made other improvements to the park, including cleanup of the dumpster areas…

She also touted the service Halter provides:

For years, Ms. Halter has provided low-income housing for minorities and other marginalized groups. The Town has made clear during these proceedings that these folks are unwelcome. However, there is a housing shortage, and we question whether the Town has thought through the impact of this number of suddenly homeless individuals if this license is revoked. Ms. Halter has diligently attempted to provide this housing, having grown up “dirt poor” herself…

Sarvis said Halter is “attempting to cooperate” with the town and adhere to the ordinances.

Both Campbell and Shumpert confirmed to WIS that an appeal hearing for Halter has been scheduled for Oct. 18.

Campbell and Shumpert confirmed WIS that all four business licenses of Halter’s business licenses are revoked pending her appeal.

Town ordinance requires that if Halter’s appeal fails, the tenants of the properties (Chapel Road park, Genesis Park, Ciera Park, and Halter Park) will have to leave within 30 days of the hearing.

“It’s my goal and my promise to assist in that effort in every way we can because I feel like the town, we’re responsible too,” Campbell said.

WIS pressed on the town’s plans to assist the tenants who would be evicted as a potential consequence of the town’s code enforcement efforts.

“Honestly this is new. This is all new for us, we’ve not been here in this place before. That’s something that’s going to need some discussion from council and possibly even a meeting with council and the landlords and the police department, I don’t know. This is new ground for us,” she said.

Shumpert said the removal of the parks would allow his officers be proactive elsewhere.

Walker provided data that through Aug. 2 of this year, 47.4 percent of the calls triggering police reports have come from mobile home parks Halter owns.

“It would give us more time to maybe solving a case we weren’t able to solve because we were tied up on a call that shouldn’t be happening to begin with,” Shumpert said.

Councilmembers Brian Jackson, Jim Drennan and Mechelle Mabry declined interview requests on this story.

Councilwoman Kitty Spires said she will likely vote to keep Halter’s business licenses revoked, unless new and strong evidence is presented.

“My thought process is this. If you know the right thing to do and you don’t do it, then you’re as guilty as the person who the violations have been written on,” she said.

Additional town oversight could be coming in the form of a 3rd party building official.

The town fired its prior building official in July 2021 for operating without a license.

Lexington County provided building inspection services in the interim.

The town council voted 4-0 (with Councilman Brian Jackson absent) on Sept. 26 to contract with SafeBuilt Carolinas, LLC for six months.

Campbell signed the contract on Oct. 4, 2022 and provided WIS a copy.

The scope of services includes providing services as a building official and code enforcer “as requested.”

Those duties include but are not limited to:

  • Overseeing certificate of occupancy issuance “to prevent issuance without compliance of all departments”
  • Respond to and investigate code violations as requested by the county
  • Proactively work with the town and citizens “to maintain a safe and desirable community.”

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